Theater Review: Romeo and Juliet at A Noise Within

On a typically warm SoCal Sunday afternoon I jumped onto a frigidly air-conditioned bus for the seven-minute jaunt to the Eastern Pasadena locale of the theater company known as A Noise Within. But as always my first stop was Hook Burger, though I was in a time dilemma: I wasn’t hungry yet at 1:30PM, but the play wouldn’t be done till 4:30, which meant my stomach would be gnawing at me around intermission time. So I did the only logical thing: rather than having a burger that I wasn’t in the mood for yet, I ordered an orange cream float, because everyone has room for ice cream, right? I even found out I can have it to go, which sounded weird but turned out easier than I anticipated, in a regular fancy-coffee-style cup with me adding the orange cream soda whenever needed through the hole in the dome on top.
Once inside the stylish 1960’s building housing the theater, I spent some time perusing the display of past productions, as next year is the company’s 25th anniversary and they want the fans to play a part in choosing next year’s shows. That wasted enough time for me to finish my dessert-first-or-only meal before heading down to my seat. Once comfortably ensconced, I took in the stage, which featured a graffiti backdrop with similarly decorated dumpsters. More to the point, the actors were on stage, walking around, talking to each other, as though psyching themselves up. In my head I joked that they were going to form in a circle and put their hands in for “Break!” only to find them actually doing it!
Okay, on to Romeo and Juliet, no doubt the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, along with Hamlet; star-crossed lovers and all that. In the lobby I’d seen plenty of teens, so I wondered just how surprised they would be to find the play isn’t just the love affair that is emphasized in most high school English classes, no doubt in order to get the students to pay more attention.
Unlike people I’ve talked to who are fascinated by every rendition of the Queen Mab soliloquy, I’ve never thought of it as that special. . . until Rafael Goldstein did it here. I can’t even tell you why it got to me this time, only that it did, at least enough for me to remember it as one of the highlights.
Just about every Shakespeare piece has some music to it, in this case the party at the Capulets, where Romeo sneaks in and first sees Juliet. The difference in this production was the inclusion of a live violinist up in what would later become Juliet’s window (don’t get me started on the “balcony” thing). There’s also enough banging on the dumpsters during the fight scenes to remind me of Stomp.
I’ve seen Robinson Dean in plenty of productions here, as well as being the translator for Antigone, but this is my first time watching him do comedy, shuffling about barefoot like a ditzy old man; his exclamation of “Holy Saint Francis!” had me metaphorically rolling on the floor. Lacy Capulet, played by company regular Jill Hill, brought some levity as well as heavy angst to the small role, looking like a Beverly Hills matron/airhead in her gold boots while smoking and drinking before letting it all out when she wanted Romeo dead for killing her nephew Tybalt.
But if I had to single out one actor, it would be June Carryl, whom at the beginning shows a barely controlled rage as the Prince—I love how this company has a tradition of casting women in male roles, as though thumbing their nose at Shakespeare’s time, when all the actors were men—and then delivering a hilarious performance as the nurse, particularly when she exasperates Juliet by claiming she’s too out of breath to tell the news. I wish I could remember her turn on Castle, but I’ll sure be on the lookout for her name from now on. Also switching genders was Charlotte Gulezian as a tomboyish Benvolio, who quickly made me forget the character was supposed to be male, so natural was she.
If I had one small quibble it would be with Will Bradley in the male lead. Let’s face it, Romeo is well described as the world’s first Emo, so there’s plenty of room to ham things up. Still, I thought that in this performance he might have taken it too far; having seen it so many times, this is the first time I really didn’t like Romeo, thought he was a selfish jerk more than just a guy carried away by love. Will was so excellent in Figaro, but that was a farce, where there’s no limit to the ham, cheese, and relish you can stuff in that acting sandwich, but here I would have appreciated just a touch more restraint. Also leaving tooth marks on the scenery was Alan Blumenfeld as Capulet, but whether being jovial at the party or angry during the fights scenes and his disagreement with Juliet, it seemed completely in character.
I almost hate to leave out Juliet, because it’s not that I had any problem with Donnla Hughes’ portrayal. I suppose because some of the other actors were so amazing, she didn’t register as much with me, or perhaps as the voice of reason she didn’t get as much opportunity to shine.
As for the set, I don’t think the graffiti-clad alleyway did anything for me; not worse, but not better. Same for their clothes, though Romeo in a hoodie was as perfect as possible. What was strange was seeing the actors hanging around the stage, both in the wings and on the steps around the stage, almost part of the audience, watching but not part of it, seeing things their characters didn’t. Have to admit it was a little distracting.
The dumpsters, on the other hand, might be considered their own characters. They are used to full effect, like in the scene with the apothecary, where he’s inside the usually-smelly rolling box, wearing a mask so we don’t see it’s same actor as Mercutio. There’s plenty of acrobatics on them, with some of the actors lying on them as they watch the action, banging for sound effect. At one point Juliet is climbing back to her window and hangs with her foot on the narrow side protrusion, a precarious position that had me fearing for her safety. Even more so was when the dumpster was used to hold her supposedly dead body at the end, though fortunately for her comfort they added a mattress. Since it’s impossible to gauge how wide the thing is from the audience, I was again distracted by the thought she might fall off, more than doubly so when Romeo joined her up there. The paper lanterns didn’t help the depth perception either, and made the scene kinda eerie, yet also produced a beautiful light as Juliet lies there. And then there’s Paris lying on the floor for what seemed like forever. . .
Whooo! Deep breath as the light come up. As usual I waited while most people scooted out, then glanced at the nextrip app and saw that my bus was leaving in two minutes! Dashing up the stairs, which none of my doctors recommend, I dodge through the crowd like a running back, out the back door, along the small tree-lined walkway between the condos and the construction site, and into the cavernous bus station under the parking structure and light-rail station. Made it just as the bus was pulling in! Endorphins flow!

Bonus coverage!
Last night was the meeting of the INsiders, a group under the auspices of A Noise Within who gather to discuss the plays being done, and of course this was Romeo and Juliet night. That was why I waited to write this review even though I saw the production last week. We were joined by Miranda Johnson-Haddad, who is a renown Shakespearean expert, and Amir Abdullah, who brought Paris to life. . . and death.
But first I had to go to Hook Burger of course, for my customary Prime Burger plain with cheese and bacon, with an orange cream soda to wash it all down. It only helped that they had sent me a coupon for a free burger in the mail, and I went early enough not to worry about being late to the meeting. In fact I had enough time to walk down the block to the really long strip mall, where I bypassed Jamba to hit up Baskin Robbins, finding to my amazement they had a bucket of orange sherbet open for business! I have not seen orange available for at least five years, so it felt like this was a night where nothing could go wrong, and to hell with tempting fate!
Hard to remember all the topics that were covered once things got started, but with this being such a popular play there was plenty to discuss, even for me; in the past I’ve felt left out when I didn’t know the production all that well. My main question for Amir was: considering the setting and costumes, was there any discussion to completely modernize and set the play in contemporary times? He admitted they had talked about it, and he joked that he would have liked to pull out his cell phone when he’s asked the time, but they ultimately decided against it, which I think was the right call for two reasons. First and foremost, the tragedy hinges on Romeo not getting the news that Juliet’s faking her death, with the Black Plague as an excuse for the messenger not getting the job done. In modern times it would have simply taken an email, and would have been especially timely, since Romeo would have heard about Juliet’s death on Facebook or Twitter. The second reason was that even if modern doctors were fooled by the potion simulating Juliet’s death. . . autopsy! Yikes!
One point that I forgot to bring up was that this is not just an infatuation between teens, but an infatuation between RICH teens. Had they been peasants, no one would have cared, and all the deaths wouldn’t have happened. In fact, poor teens probably wouldn’t have reacted that way anyhow; they had work to do.
{Hmmmm, I just remembered there were a couple of times when Miranda said, “What’s discussed in this room stays in this room.” Oopsie. . .}

;o)

Poetry Tuesday: To The German People

By Johann Christian Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843)

Do not jeer at the child, when with a whip and spur
On a horse of wood he thinks himself mighty and great.
For you Germans, you are also
Poor at acting, and good at dreaming.

Or am I wrong, like lightning out of clouds, will acts come
From daydreams? Will books spring to life?
Lock me up if that happens, my dear ones,
Make me pay for this blasphemy!

;o)

Book Reviews: Russia, Sweden, Mars, and Canada

“Tell me I’m the best.”
Her face went through a series of contortions until finally bawling, “If I lie my head will explode!”

Rasputin Volume 2
Considering I’ve read a graphic novel about a Japanese monk from hundreds of years ago, the story of the legendary Russian mystic doesn’t seem nearly as weird in comparison.
Someone kills a Hillary Clinton clone at a speech only to have Rasputin bring her back to life as he talks about watching his father die in the snow. A reporter saw him do it and wants to know how it happened, and the story switches between the present and his telling of how he became the way he is.
Which is incredibly confusing. I’ve done a bunch of research on Rasputin, and if this is how he managed to survive all those assassination attempts. . . hell, it’s as good as any other. But I still didn’t understand how it worked, and I doubt the reporter did either. There appears to be plenty of clues in the narrative, they just didn’t mesh. At one point it’s said he saved JFK after he was shot, making this an alternate universe, but I didn’t understand what that had to do with the story.
What really saves it is the humor; there’s one point where he actually says, “Be quiet, ghost.” Yeah, that’ll work.
I’m not a fan of the artwork; too angular. However, props to the depiction of Maria, who is the cutest little blonde girl I’ve ever seen drawn. The snow fairy—I doubt that’s what it was but can find no other way to describe it—is also beautifully done.
Bonus—script, complete with links and spelling mistakes; quotes, bios.
The final grade below is more for the story than the artwork, although it was damned confusing at times.
3/5

Closed Circles
Rich Swedish guy driving his yacht is shot at the same time as the starter’s pistol goes off for a boat race. I’m liking this already.
As expected, this book follows the murder investigation, but also delves into the private lives of the lead detective and includes several other plots that really have nothing to do with the main story, in fact could have been separate stories on their own. One in particular seems to come out of the previous book in the series, which I have not read, and is therefore not only confusing but irritating when I’m trying to solve the murder along with the detective.
There’s a ton of characters, far too many to keep straight in my mind. Oddly enough one of them had the same name as a girl I used to know, but that’s neither here nor there. A lot of them don’t have what you’d call typical Scandinavian names either; I don’t know if that gets confusing for native readers, but it sure made things difficult for me. There were plenty of times when I wanted a character sheet; too often a name was mentioned and I had no idea which one it was, yet I wasn’t invested enough to go back and check. Another problem was too many chapters; felt like there was a new one every time the point of view changes, which was definitely annoying. There’s a lot of padding, like the mistress who misses the dead guy and snuggles with her cat. So what?
The detective and his colleagues are good at their job, though they do miss some obvious possibilities (which is weird for me to say after complaining of padding, I know). Halfway through I made a note: “So far no one had mentioned the possibility of a paid assassin.” It eventually does come up, but by then the story had passed it by.
There were several motives offered, including a pretty good one having to do with medical research. With so many suspects that’s to be expected, and it’s well done. When I was finished and looked back on it. . . I suppose the clues were there, at least with the drugs, but with so much going on it was easy for them to get buried, so it felt like the killer’s motive was out of the blue, and that’s not a boat pun.
The ending at the boar hunt was a letdown, the author making it too obvious what was going to happen. I have mixed feelings about the epilogue as well, as I was hoping the cops would be there when she landed, yet found it unnecessary.
Even though this book is way bloated and has too many chapters, I liked it well enough. Hadn’t seen that part of Sweden—except for Solna—but could picture it easily.
3.5/5

Spaceport West
The Brits try to colonize Mars; it doesn’t go smoothly. There are androids and Russians and a reality show crew, so. . . fun.
I can see why people are comparing it—at least in format—to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, especially with the info inserts. But where Douglas Adams was truly hilarious, this is a little too cutesy and earnest; would have preferred a little restraint, and definitely more successful attempts at humor. Some of the characters, especially the lead, are well done, while others are mere caricatures used to move the plot, such as it was, along. There was quite a bit about life on Mars, some of it described exquisitely, with plenty of reasons for not wanting to go there. Most of all, do not undertake this sort of mission when politicians are being asses—in other words, their usual self—about it.
Wow, that ended out of the blue, especially considering it’s a short book, just a little over novella length. Probably a set-up for a sequel.
2.5/5

Alex vs. the Four-Headed Gargantuan
Kid gets newspaper route and must face challenges, from angry dogs and bullies to struggling with being honest. Though listed under graphic novels, this is mostly written, with occasional drawings showing how he views the encounters in his head as his alter-ego, Super Paperboy!
It’s all about learning lessons as he grows up, like helping people without expectation of reward; in his fantasy he’s bringing rain to a drought-stricken land. On a class field trip he wants to buy something at the museum store with his hard-earned money, but when he can’t settle on one thing he instead buys ice cream for all his classmates, and finds he enjoys the giving feeling. He tries to buy off the bullies with some cookies, and knows a secret of their leader, so impasse for the moment, although that turns into a life lesson as well when it he realizes things aren’t always as they seem.
Super Paperboy Gets His Super On—nice chapter title.
It’s never stated outright, but with the weather and the mention of “Loonie!” I figured out the story takes place in Canada.
So, lessons that masquerade as cute stories. The artwork is no big deal, but gets the job done.
4/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Mindfulness on the Streets of San Francisco

“Guess what I made you!”
“Angry?”

Where Is Jake Ellis?
A graphic novel with two stories that eventually converge. In one, a tough guy in Bangkok is hiding out, while in the other an amnesiac in a German lab is wanted by every US agency, including DARPA; they don’t often get mentioned, so good for them.
Did not know going in that there was a previous volume, which would have been a big help. As far as I can make out, the amnesiac is not only in telepathic contact with the other guy, but he can tell him how to escape traps and which way to go without being there, so possibly precognition. There’s another guy—with his eyes sewn shut? Ew!—doing the same for the bad guys, so each side has a psychic or such.
As if that wasn’t enough farfetchness of plot, the guy in Thailand goes to the American embassy to tell his story, hoping that’ll keep those hunting him off his back. That seems incredibly naïve for such a skilled operator, and indeed all he did was get a death sentence on the head of the young diplomat he gets shunted to. So now he’s got to protect her as well as himself, but of course she has to stubbornly insist that he leave her alone, so she can become the damsel in distress later.
By this time the amnesiac has broken out of the hospital, only to find his previous life no longer valid, with his wife remarried. He promptly gets kidnapped and taken to Bangkok so both plots can come together. That’s probably my major complaint about this narrative: every plot device is so convenient, exactly what the story needs to move along, almost by the numbers.
Then the operative gets captured and quickly breaks out—and we find out about the experiments the military had performed on them—BUT the escape is not shown; that’s not a good way of doing things. Can’t help but laugh that the downed helicopter crashes into the plane just as it was taking off with the main bad guy; again, convenient. But the worst part was how he got shot in Thailand and a few minutes later it didn’t matter; he was back to fully operational. He gets shot in the facility—doesn’t matter. He separates his shoulder—doesn’t matter. Perhaps each issue had a different author and they didn’t collaborate, but this is a stunning lack of continuity that has to cost when coming up with the rating. This really had a chance to be so much better. . .
Extras: sketchbook, digital layouts. Big credits.
2/5

Hinges Book Two
Having not read the first book, I was very confused—I keep saying a one page recap of what went before is necessary if you want new people to buy this—but I’m not sure that would have been any different if I was familiar with the previous story.
Basically some very strangely drawn characters inhabit an equally strange city with even stranger small animals as companions. At one point the young woman who seems to be the crux of the story chases after her animal buddy, who leads her to a wall around the city she didn’t know was there. This female main character is not exactly the smartest around, but the two of them manage to escape the city and go “outside,” where they promptly run into someone from another city.
At this point I wondered Does the city of Cobble stand for Kabul? Luckily I didn’t bother to think about that further.
The three of them wander around; he won’t stop talking, she won’t start, so this gets boring in a hurry. Bauble the animal doesn’t do anything. At least now I know, from the artwork when they’re in another city, why this story is named Hinges.
Ends in a literal cliffhanger.
Said drawing is one of my problems with this book, being different in a way I can’t really describe, and the coloring feels off. This feels like a story where the author had it so perfectly in their head that they expected everyone else to get it too; I certainly didn’t.
2/5

Master of Mindfulness
Basically simple examples of how to use mindfulness, in both written and picture form. One is in Spanish. I was wondering how they were going to define mindfulness, which ended up being as simplistic as possible, though I suppose that was necessary, as I remembered kids are the target audience.
Usually I’m good with children’s books; I can put myself in the right frame of mind. {Shut up.} This one was not as easy, as—at least in the digital version—the fonts and graphics are difficult to read, part of that because they’re so small.
Difficult to give this a proper grade; it means well, but the execution could have been better. As far as the content, I’m not sure how well kids would take to it, but it certainly couldn’t hurt having them read it.
3/5

Rouse the Demon
Supposedly this book, or this series, was the inspiration for the show Streets of San Francisco; just to demonstrate how old it is, that TV show was before my time. And why switch it from S&M to Es Eff?
Anyhoo, in this story the two main cops are looking for the killer of a noted therapist, whom I imagine was before his time, not at all as common as today. On the other hand, I don’t know how many therapists today use hypnotism, but I’m sure when this story first came out such touches made it memorable.
Didn’t take long at all to hate Krug, the veteran detective who’s seen it all; we’re supposed to hate him, the way he’s written, and we do. He’s there as a counterpoint to show off the narrator, who despite still living with his mom is supposedly a stylish ladies’ man. Perhaps this was one of the first that has such counterpointing characters that seem so familiar today.
As always it’s fun to read about places I know, even from 40 years ago, mostly Santa Monica, specifically Ocean Avenue. It didn’t hit me just how long ago it was until I read “flashbulb,” which even in the later years of film photography had been overtaken by electronic flashes. Later on there’s a payphone, and a drive-in, where the ending takes place. But other than those few things, it doesn’t feel anachronistic at all, and the plot is as timely today.
4/5

;o)

Poetry Tuesday: When I turn again to gaze on the years

By Francesco Petrarch, 14th century King of the Sonnets.

(Those of you who know how, read it as a sonnet.)

When I turn again to gaze on the years
that have scattered all my thoughts in passing,
and doused the fire where I, freezing, burned,
and ended my repose full of torments,
broke my faith in loving illusions,
and made two separate parts of all my good,
one in heaven, the other left in earth,
and lost all the profits of my wealth,
I rouse myself, and find myself so naked,
that I envy every extreme fate:
I have such grief and fear for myself.
O my star, O Fortune, O Fate, O Death,
O day always sweet and cruel to me,
to what an evil state you have brought me!

;o)

Book Reviews: Funny Ducks, Bad Future, Double Exposed

“Don’t do anything you don’t want to.”
She batted her lashes. “But then how will you owe me one?”

Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting
A collection from a comic strip about an anthropomorphized family of ducks, with the father having trouble raising the kiddies, or ducklings.
This book is funny right from the intro, where after talking to other parents the author realizes that he is in fact the only one having doubts about their ability to raise a child; it wasn’t till he stared this strip that he grasped something the baby could have told him: “A lot of people are big fat liars!”
There’s some hilarious stuff that doesn’t need anything more said about it here. Then there’s some jokes that don’t hit you right away; it takes a couple of seconds for the humor to detonate. The good thing is that the LOL per page ratio is pretty high, as a lot of these get more than just a smile or a chuckle. There’s even a nice dig on Star Wars. The art work is serviceable, good enough without getting in the way of the humorous writing, which is really the important part.
4.5/5

The Shape of Shit to Come
A look at the future, as regards to technology, genetics, food, weather, and so on, as told by two British guys who think they’re writing for Benny Hill or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The sad robot on the cover, reminiscent of Marvin from the latter of the abovementioned references, sets the tone nicely.
While in general this is a good overview of what the future might have in store, the inclusion of too many not-worth-it jokes had me rolling my eyes far too often. There’s some surprising scientific logic behind the often groan-worthy humor, but it’s not allowed to flourish. The worst part for me was that all the British-isms were tough to understand; it wasn’t till they mentioned a Wallace and Grommit movie that I grasped a reference. And then after all that, their conclusion is: Cheer up—it might never happen.
This could have received a higher grade had they been able to hold in the impulse to include some silly humor that kinda screwed up their whole point. While I get them trying to parry the doom-and-gloom scenarios, having someone from Monty Python or Red Dwarf ghost-write a few jokes would have helped immensely.
3.5/5

Tough Justice: Exposed
Female FBI agent saves suicidal guy from ledge; he’s instantly shot once on the ground. But that’s just the tip of the plot iceberg, as it is then explained that she’d gone undercover to bust a mafia, then spent two years hiding from them.
Despite the FBI team’s insistence on the possibility that it could be completely unrelated to that assignment, it’s plain that it is. There were times when I asked a pertinent question a chapter ahead of the agents, except when I asked a question that the bright but angry detective never thought of, having to do with the dead guy’s girlfriend and his missing phone. It’s actually pretty good procedural-wise, though with these obvious lapses. While this is at heart a mystery, there’s also a look into the mentality of an undercover agent after a year-long job. I would say she’s suffering from a form of PTSD, except her trust issues and such began long before.
Since this is the first of a series—or I should say miniseries, because they’re novellas—it ends in a cliffhanger, but at least it’s expected.
I liked it, but not sure if I liked it enough to continue with the series.
3.5/5

Exposed
Hot lawyer in Seattle has sex, gets married, goes to sex clubs with her husband, gets divorced, then is really screwed over. Told as one long stream of consciousness, with the narrator in the present telling us about her past, this first-person chronicle takes some getting used to, but is ultimately worth the trip.
Can’t say I’m a fan of the format, but I ended up enjoying her journey. She would likely never realize how good she’s had it, preferring to microscope on the bad parts: how her parents suck, how her husband screwed her over. The good things in her life are basically the women she helps—though some are not worthy—her grandmother, and all the sex she has.
Toward the end it turns into a revenge fantasy come to life, where we find out who the true villain, the puppetmaster, is. The fact she enjoys sex with him doesn’t stop her from giving him what’s coming to him for all the misery he put her through, so the story ends with a sense of wrongs being righted and satisfaction being gained.
I did not think I would enjoy it this much when I started, especially the ending. Glad I stuck with it.
4/5

;o)